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Before the War 

Butterfly lyrically mines the time-honored old-man-and-boy theme

For most Americans, the social and political issues underlying Jose Luis Cuerda's Butterfly may seem remote at best. The tensions between republicans and fascists in Spain after the fall of that nation's monarchy in 1931, and dictator Francisco Franco's victory in the bloody Spanish Civil War, may have stirred strong feelings in Ernest Hemingway and Woody Guthrie. But the bulk of U.S. moviegoers today might find such stuff about as relevant as the Punic Wars or the Treaty of Ghent.

'Tis a pity. Because Cuerda's delicate fable about the relationship between a little boy and his first teacher, set in the northwestern province of Galicia as the war clouds gather, has plenty to say not only about the enormous tragedy about to befall Spain, but also about such timeless concerns as the power of imagination, the force of love, and the necessity of conscience. Cuerda takes us to a simple mountain village in 1936, but his overarching issue is the nature of humanity itself.

Producer/director Cuerda, who made most of his previous films for Spanish television, is 52, and the writer whose fiction he has adapted, Manuel Rivas, is a full decade younger, so they do not know firsthand the cruelties of the conflict that tore their country apart between 1936 and 1939. But both men understand that the national trauma is not over: The Generalissimo died 25 years ago, but the effects of his totalitarian rule linger.

Here, Cuerda has drawn upon three Rivas short stories -- each of which looks at crucial 1936 in a slightly different light. Artfully woven together by screenwriter Rafael Azcona, "La Lengua de Las Mariposas" ("The Tongue of the Butterflies"), "Carmina," and "Un Saxo en la Niebla" ("A Saxophone in the Mist") give us an unsettling picture of a society reveling in its fragile new democracy, but increasingly divided by ideology, threatened by incipient violence, and disturbed by religious and sexual repression. Onscreen, the dominant story is the first one, in which an asthmatic six-year-old, Moncho (Manuel Lozano), is sent to school, where, after a jittery first day, he blossoms under the tutelage of a kindly old teacher named Don Gregorio. Significantly, the old man, who is played by the great Spanish actor and director Fernando Fernan Gomez, is rumored to be both an atheist and a socialist. But his way with children is magical: He awakens in them an appreciation of poetry, a love of nature, and a respect for personal freedom. For little Moncho, a curious boy who already knows how to read, the classroom is heaven. We see his eager mind opening, drinking in the wonders of the world. If Don Gregorio personifies the spirit of Spanish liberty, his newest student surely represents the promise that his spirit will continue to flourish.

Suffice to say that the idyll shared by the boy and his teacher, like Spain's respite from 1931 to 1936, is doomed. In the end, mob rule will prevail, and even the boy will be implicated in betrayal. To give this heartbreaking tale some shading, Cuerda has incorporated elements of the two lesser Rivas stories, and that has worked surprisingly well. Compared to that of the gleeful satirist Pedro Almodovar or the great surrealist provocateur Luis Buñuel, Cuerda's style may seem a bit restrained. But not every Spanish director was born to excoriate the clergy or savage the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. Cuerda's approach seems much more akin to the Italian neorealists, whose plain, postwar style and burning social commitment influenced earlier generations of Spanish moviemakers eager to defy the Franco regime. Direct and deceptively simple, Cuerda's moviemaking in Butterfly depends less on artifice than emotion.

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